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Special Reports

By Roger Witherspoon
Feb 5, 2003, 13:48

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The world is riding a surge of technological development that holds both unlimited potential for human development and benefit as well as unknown potential for destruction and abuse.

It is a world where increased computational power, access to data, knowledge of biological systems, and the ability to manipulate data will drive the creation of wealth, the strength of national economies, and the extent of economic and educational opportunities, while challenging situational ethics at an unprecedented pace over the next quarter-century.

This new world will pose unique problems for our nation's minority groups. On the positive side, increasing numbers of Blacks and Hispanics, greatly underrepresented in technological and scientific fields, will be in positions to participate in and help drive the technological juggernaut now under way. But, on the downside, large parts of these communities may remain as they are now: passengers on a train with no clear destination and no moral compass.

Technological advances will make more useful information available to more people than ever before and may bring the benefits of education to new generations of underprivileged youth and provide a push toward the economic and intellectual mainstream of modern American society. But the rapid pace of technological advance also may accelerate the disparities between the technological "haves" and have-nots, separating society between those who control and use technology and those who are controlled by it. It will create new opportunities at the same time it is creating new ways to discriminate.

'A Great Irony'

It is a recognition of this dual potential and a concern for the lack of Black influence at this crucial time that drives people like Nat Irvin, D.M.A., executive professor of future studies and assistant dean for M.B.A. student development at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Dr. Irvin founded Future Focus 2020, a think tank at the university's Babcock Graduate School of Management that delves into the pace of technological development and its implications for society.

"There needs to be a dialogue about the long-term future within the Black communities," Dr. Irvin says. "We have not made the transition from focusing on the past and starting to look 20 and 40 years out to determine what is happening and how we will fit in.

"It is a great irony that our ancestors were some of the best futurists. The institutions we inherited -- such as historically Black colleges and universities, and the churches -- were built at a time when we had nothing, but were built with an eye towards the future. We need to look at the sociological impact of the technological trends ahead of us. We are talking about a society based on knowledge and the processing of information. And the power of information will have the potential to divide the 'knows' from the know-nots."

Dr. Irvin, a theorist, spends time considering the implications of the developments in engineering, computer science, biotechnology, and medicine -- technology turned out by people like Leroy Jones, senior manager for regulatory engineering at Dell Computer and one of the founding engineers of Compaq.

Expanding Gap

"I made a prediction in '82 when we started Compaq," says Jones, "that by the year 2000, these things will be as popular as television sets. Now, they are almost more important than televisions and just about everything you can do with the telephone you can do on the computer via the Internet.

"I see us using computers more for just about every aspect of our lives, and that is something of a sore spot with me because of the 'Digital Divide' issue. There will always be the 'haves' and have-nots, and we are in a position now where the 'haves' are increasing the gap as a result of their ability to obtain information technologies.

"We cannot be left behind in this area," Jones says. "We have to train our kids that it is not uncool to be smart. We have to change a mindset, particularly in the lower-income areas where they don't see the advantages that this technology is bringing as readily as the kids in more prominent areas."

The Technological Revolution we are entering will be different from the technological era that brought the world from the Space Race to the current Computer Age. That is because the current computer is rapidly becoming obsolete.

The New Computing

"We haven't changed the way we have built [computers] for the past 20 to 30 years," says Mark Dean, Ph.D., vice president for architecture and design at IBM. Dr. Dean was the 2000 Black Engineer of the Year. "We are riding the wave of silicon technology which allows a rudimentary system structure to grow in performance. But the way we use them is pretty archaic.

"It is a lot like the world back when engineers discovered new uses for steam," Dr. Dean says. "It was a big deal, and it drove the Industrial Revolution. But that technology hasn't changed a lot, and it is now considered rather mundane."

Dr. Dean, one of 50 IBM Fellows, has a unique perspective on the role of computers in society. He is the holder of about 40 patents, including four of the original seven for the architecture of the first IBM PC. Unlike Jones, Dean first thought the early computers of the '80s would be useful novelties; he gave little thought to the ramifications of the increasing ability to acquire, assimilate, and manipulate information.

"The computers have been built to compute only," Dr. Dean says, "and they have done a pretty good job. But in the future, they will be used to manage data and become more 'datacentric' rather than computational. And that will be the key: the ability to search vast amounts of data and find patterns in that data will allow us to discover new medicines or new business or financial models.

"This is not just computing but searching information, storing, filing, and linking information together," Dr. Dean points out. "And this is not just text information but videos and audio and unstructured information like large documents or data on weather systems."

Intel Inside

In medicine, says Dr. Dean, the next decade will bring data systems in pill form, "and inside are electronic sensors which will analyze and transmit information from inside the body to equipment outside which will store and analyze it. It will have a camera and microphones and take digital pictures of the intestines and the entire digestive system. It will take blood samples and blood pressure, measure the perspiration rate, and function as an internal super-sensor that transmits data to a watch-type or beeper-type device that you wear for a couple of days.

"If you have a pain along the way or feel feverish, you punch that into the data receiver, and that will be correlated to what the probe shows is going on inside you. From this, the doctors will be able to determine everything that is happening inside you. If you are asthmatic or have heart disease, this can show what triggers problems. This miniaturization and leveraging of information-gathering is a new approach to medicine but will become more and more prevalent as we find better ways to get more powerful data-collecting systems into smaller packages."

Which brings us to nanotechnology: the nexus between engineering and the biological sciences.

'The Ultimate Science'

"Nanotechnology is the ultimate science as far as most scientists and engineers are concerned," says Howard University professor Gary Harris, Ph.D. "It allows you to get to the ultimate toolbox: the atoms and molecules themselves. This is building things from the bottom up. And by manipulating molecules, we can develop new devices to extend our reach into all kinds of areas. We will soon get to the physical limits of integrated circuits and all the devices that revolve around that silicon-based technology. Nanotechnology is the answer to that barrier. It gets around the physical limits that nature has put into place, preventing us from making traditional semiconductors smaller and smaller.

"It is not just nanoelectronics, but nanobiological techniques and even drugs," Dr. Harris says.

Nanotechnology allows for the creation of nano-robots, or 'nanobots,' which operate on the scale of a nanometer, one-billionth of a meter or less. Howard University's Materials Science Research Center in their College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Science is part of the National Nano-Fabrications Users Network, a five-member consortium sponsored by the National Science Foundation along with Cornell, Penn State, and Stanford Universities and the University of Santa Barbara. The group has more than $90 million in equipment, which individual, academic, and corporate researchers may access to develop nano-applications. The schools have attracted research projects from physics to dermatology, Dr. Harris says.

Good 'Bots, Bad 'Bots

With nanobiological technology, Dr. Harris continues, a person could take a drug that is, in fact, a collection of nanobots with instructions imprinted at the cellular level.

"They could be given instructions to go through the body looking for cancerous cells," he explains. "And if they reach one, detach it from other cells and pass it out as waste. There is no fundamental reason why physics can't be made to take advantage of atoms and molecules themselves and fabricate devices that operate on individual atoms and molecules."

But the promise of nanotechnology and nanobiology also has potential drawbacks. What if the nanobots that are dropped into a person don't die after their job is done?

"There is a whole bunch of issues related to developing nanotechnology which haven't been worked on in great detail yet," Dr. Harris says. "This is an area of concern, especially when you talk about biological applications. Electrical applications are another matter: There we are talking about machines, and if you are uncertain about them, you can unplug them. That's not necessarily the case in nanobiology.

"What if we develop a nanobot which can identify what race you are and do damage to people based on race or ethnicity? That is an issue for African Americans. There is always a danger and a negative side to science, and you have to be prepared for that."

'Ethical Dilemmas'

The negative side of science is a concern of Dr. Irvin, particularly as there is growing understanding of the human genome and the ability to target individual characteristics.

"Genomics means there are a lot of opportunities for Blacks," Dr. Irvin says, "but there is a lot to consider as well. It is the power of the future, but it is untapped territory."

On the economic side, the development of nanotechnology and the next generation of computational equipment again will transform the job market. This will result in the same type of dislocations as occurred when the Industrial Age -- with its huge manufacturing centers requiring little in the way of educated workers -- was replaced by the Information Age that began in the '60s.

And there are ethical dilemmas on the horizon.

"What happens when you are able to improve human beings with this technology?" Dr. Irvin asks. "Suppose you can improve the immune system by targeted changes to the genetic structure in an embryo. What if you want to improve eyesight, or hearing, or memory and cognitive ability? Would you want to do that for your child if you could?"

Genetic Divide

"Of course you would," Dr. Irvin says. "You would want your child to have the best possible chance to succeed in life. If we can improve the memory and intelligence and speed of our children, we will seek to do that to give them every advantage we can. But as soon as you move from chance genetics to choice, you are seeking the ability to create people who are smarter, stronger, and faster than other people.

"This will create a fundamental divide, because it will cost money. The people with the ability to do this for their children and [who have] the access will do it. But those who don't will be born with inferior innate abilities."

So what will happen, asks Dr. Irvin, when a manager in 2025 is faced with two job candidates and knows from genetic testing that one of them has a strengthened memory and immune system?

"You are then looking at genetic discrimination," Dr. Irvin says, "and it is a shame that there are so few Blacks participating in the current ethical or legal discussions of these types of issues. This is not something that should be left to one segment of the population."

Roger Witherspoon can be reached at

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